Race and Sexuality in 300 (2006)

Based on Frank Millers graphic novel of the same name, Zack Synder’s 2006 action film 300 depicts the ancient battle of Thermopylae – in which 300 Spartans fought against an army of Persians reaching numbers of 170,000 soldiers. Upon the films release, there was much criticism towards depictions of race in the narrative, with some critics such as Slates Dana Stevens declaring the film “as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war”. Along with race, the underlying themes of sexuality and homoeroticism have lead critics and viewers alike to question the motivations behind the characterisation of 300’s heroes and villains.

It can be said that all stories can be simplified into one basic premise – Good vs Evil. But it is what those traits are represented by which makes the stories engaging to an audience. The creators of 300 decided to forgo historical accuracy in order to entertain their audiences. The Spartans, our heroes of the film, are suitably Aryan in their colouring, despite being a collection of men from Greece. If we then compare this casting to the casting of the Persian leader Xerxes, there is a clear racist undertone to these choices. Portraying one of the few persons of colour in 300 as the villain is enforcing racial stereotypes of white = good, black = bad. However it should be noted that the casting is true to character depictions in the original graphic novel, so the dichotomies surrounding the characters are not solely the responsibility of director Zack Synder.

Physicality of characters also plays a role in the representations of good and evil in 300. The Spartans are rarely seen fully clothed, with their archetypal masculine bodies on show to further drive the idea of their supreme masculinity. Some may argue that the casting of classically attractive and muscular actors was for the “benefit” of female viewers, but I would like to argue that it makes the point of Western perfection and ideals equalling power. The reverse of this argument can be seen in the many disabled and disfigured members of the Persian army, with a major plot point being their acceptance of a deformed man who was rejected by the Spartans in an example of the films ableism. Xerxes, despite his height, is coded to be read as feminine, or even agender. From his lavish gold chains, facial piercings, to his slim build and glittering makeup – Xerxes is somewhat of a visual extrovert in comparison to the rough and rugged men of Sparta, who need little more than their sword and shield to see them through a battle. Together with race, the physicality of the protagonist and antagonist are the clearest examples of the films ideology stating that adhering to Western ideals – being Aryan and typically masculine are what makes a hero, rather than being dark skinned, disabled, and flamboyant – all traits which are demonised by their connection to the films villain.

Another point brought up by many critics was the homoeroticism within the homosocial dynamic of the Spartan warriors. Despite their muscular and masculine physiques, their bare thighs and groin areas are open for all to see, including each other. Accusations of homosexuality are deflected by parts of dialogue in the film – a specific example is when a rival group of men are called “boy lovers”, which gives viewers an insight to the Spartan thoughts on homosexuality (that it is negative and something to be joked about). The heterosexuality of the Spartans, and in particular our protagonist King Leonidas, is confirmed early on in the film, with a short but illustrative sex scene between himself and his wife Queen Gorgo. The scene itself can only be described as “vanilla”, a classic man-on-top expression of marital love and lust.

Lisa Purse suggests the film is guilty of “supplying a villain onto whom the homosexuality latent in homoeroticism can be projected”(p.141, 2011) , thus representing homosexuality negatively and again rejecting the associations between queerness and the Spartan army. This concept of homosexuality being a negative and villainous trait is enforced by a scene of a harem led by Xerxes later on in the film. In direct contrast with the earlier scene of Leonidas and his wife, this scene depicts mainly gay women – many with physical disabilities – engaging in sexual activity. In modern Hollywood cinema, depictions of lesbianism are often fetishised as a result of the male gaze, but the addition of disfigurements (which notionally make the women in question less attractive) cause the viewer to be offended and feel negatively towards Xerxes and the Persians for denying them a moment of arousal.

Comolli and Narboni suggest that film, as a material product of the system, is also an ideological product of the system. This means that every film is political as it’s choices (such as representation) are determined by the ideology it is produced within. Applying this concept to 300 brings us back to the quote from Stevens, who called the film “race baiting” and an “incitement to total war”. Depicting people of colour, such as Xerxes, in a negative fashion in comparison to their “perfect” white opponents creates friction between two demographics and reinforces existing stereotypes and disharmony between the them. This film adheres to a dominant Western ideology of the strong white male having the power over a weaker person of colour.

300 was released in 2006, at a time when the Iraq war was at its most brutal, with dozens of American soldiers dying every month. Looking at this film from the perspective of it being propaganda, it again plays to the Western ideology of the white man (the Spartans being symbolic of American soldiers) being strong and masculine fighting machines. However some may argue that that would not be the case, as in the end the Persians win. Yet, I believe the ending of the film, with King Leonidas dead surrounded by his comrades, suggests a form of martyrdom – these soldiers will die for their cause – their homeland.

Snyder argues that “300 is a movie that is made from the Spartans perspective”, allowing for some form of justification of the racism, ableism and homophobia present throughout the film. Considering the film under Douglas Pye’s ‘Five Axes of Point of View’ which are – spatial, temporal, cognitive, evaluative, and ideological – we can come to terms with some of the representations. Although the camera is generally independent , we do follow the actions of King Leonidas as he prepares for battle, and the struggles of his wife Gorgo back in Sparta. The representations are so in the film as they are being told by a Spartan storyteller, a narrator (thus giving us the ideological and cognitive axes)– and as with all myths, the heroes are made extravagantly heroic, and the villains made to seem evil to an extreme. The way stories are told are to get the best reaction from the audience, be it fear or admiration, and despite Synder’s efforts to reject the criticisms he faced – he is still the real storyteller, and we are the real audience, all under the same cultural ideology.

300 is a film that was designed for reactions, and it would be ignorant to consider otherwise. However I believe 300 reinforces negative reactions towards each other, particularly in the face of differences like race, sexuality, and disability. Some may argue that mass media does not have the power to influence the public’s behaviour to that degree, but when living within an ideological bubble where those views are supported there is a strong breeding ground for hate. Whilst film and its creators have the responsibility of entertainment, there should also be a responsibility for teaching tolerance.

Bibliography

Stevens, D. (2007) A Movie Only A Spartan Could Love. Slate [Online] Available at : <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2007/03/a_movie_only_a_spartan_could_love.html> [Accessed 14th May 2016].

Purse, L. (2011). Homosexuality in the Action Film – Contemporary Action Cinema. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press .

Comolli, J. , Narboni, J. (1971) Cinema, Ideology, Criticism. Translated by Susan Bennett. Screen 12 (1) p.27 – 36.

Newgen, H. (2007) 300 Director Zack Synder. Superhero Hype [Online] Available at : http://www.superherohype.com/features/92981-300-director-zack-snyder [Accessed 14th May 2016].

Zbrowski, J. (2015) Classical Hollywood Cinema: Point of View and Communication. Oxford : Oxford University Press. p.49

Thumim, J. , Kirkman, P. (1993) You Tarzan. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Screen (1992) The Sexual Subject : A Screen Reader in Sexuality. London: Routledge.

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